Over 20 feet wide, the mural hanging from the ceiling of Burlington, Vermont’s Ohavi Zedek Synagogue is a survivor in multiple senses. Painted by a Lithuanian immigrant in 1910, it is a rare example of the wall paintings that once adorned the wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe that were destroyed in the Holocaust.
“There is not anything exactly like this anywhere,” said Syracuse University art and architecture historian Samuel D. Gruber, who has written extensively on the mural. “Now, today, it’s unique. There’s nothing as good, big, impressive, or well-preserved as the one in Burlington.”
Yet the survival of this particular mural – which weighs 6,500 lbs. on its own, is 22.5 feet wide, nine feet deep and 10.5 feet tall — was hardly assured, as attested by its name, “The Lost Shul Mural.”
Its original home was in a different synagogue, Chai Adam, several blocks away. Chai Adam moved in 1939 and the building was subsequently used as a carpet warehouse and then converted into apartments in 1986, at which time the mural was walled up.
Twenty-four years later, the building was resold — and the preservation process was reborn. In an innovative plan devised by a team of project leaders, architects, conservationists and engineers, the mural was lifted by crane out of the Chai Adam building and transferred onto a flatbed truck to Ohavi Zedek, where it was installed and unveiled last August.
The project, which has already won numerous awards, received its latest recognition in March: an Engineering Excellence award from the American Consulting Engineers Council of Vermont, which will be presented in June. In September, Gruber plans to discuss the project at a conference at the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem. And with an eye toward the long-term future, the project team hopes to restore the mural to its original appearance, add educational components, and make resources available to museums worldwide.
Depending on who you talk to, the story of the mural and its improbable rescue is either one of serendipity or plain hard work. Regardless, the story began when Ben Zion Black, a young artist fresh off the boat from the Old World, became the latest Lithuanian to join a thriving immigrant community in Burlington nicknamed “Little Jerusalem.”
Green Mountain Litvaks
Ben Zion Black grew up in Kovno, the second-largest city in Lithuania after Vilnius in the early 20th century, both centers of Lithuanian Jewish culture. Black’s father was a book designer and inker.
“Black was probably exposed to artistic production early,” Gruber said. “I don’t think he went to art school. Most likely he was trained as an apprentice. That would have been the norm.”
Shortly after Black arrived in Burlington, he was hired for an ambitious undertaking at Chai Adam, one of three synagogues in what was essentially a recreated shtetl.
“All three synagogues were within 200 to 300 feet of each other,” said Aaron Goldberg, co-director of the Lost Shul Mural Project and co-archivist at Ohavi Zedek. “It was one of the longest-preserved shtetls in North America.”
Immigrants — including many Lithuanians — came to Burlington to work at what was, after 1860, the largest fresh-water lumber port in the US. The first synagogue in Little Jerusalem, Ohavi Zedek, was built in 1885. Four years later, in 1889, Chai Adam splintered off from Ohavi Zedek. In 1910, a third synagogue, Ahavath Gerim, joined the community.
Black arrived amid a developing rivalry between Ohavi Zedek and Chai Adam. Both synagogues were planning artistic projects, with Ohavi Zedek adding wooden and copper features to its interior. Chai Adam, however, had larger-scale plans that reached back to the Eastern European origins of its congregation.
“There’s a very rich tradition of Jewish synagogue painting,” Gruber said. “It goes back at least to the 1600s. Fragments survive today from Germany, Poland, Ukraine, a little bit from Lithuania.”
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, synagogue painting had increased in Eastern Europe, particularly at its wooden synagogues and also among masonry synagogues. Even older synagogues were repainted. The images in these paintings were wide-ranging, with artists often specializing in particular motifs.
“Some could do animals, flowers, architectural background, calligraphy,” Gruber said.
An ocean away from his homeland, Black would work to recreate these traditions at Chai Adam over six months.
“It’s the same as what he would have painted in Lithuania,” said Gruber. “He brings a piece of pre-Holocaust Lithuania into the US.”
Working in oils, Black painted the Ten Commandments at the center of the mural, flanking them with rampant lions of Judah. Above the tablets and lions, he depicted the Crown of Torah, adding the Hebrew words “Keter Torah” in an accompanying banner, illuminated by the rays of the sun. In the background he painted theatrical curtains and tassels, with pastoral landscapes in left and right side panels.
Many of the images in the mural were “traditional motifs,” Gruber said. “They go back in Jewish art many, many centuries. They’re from synagogue art in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 17th centuries. You find them on the Torah ark curtains, the parochet, the shields on the Torah — rampant lions, all sorts of other inscriptions and other symbols, from Jewish art to ancient times.”
Yet Goldberg noticed something decidedly nontraditional in Black’s mural.
“What’s quite fascinating about the mural itself is its democratization of the Tent of Tabernacles,” he said. “The Jewish people were not allowed into the Tent of Tabernacles, only the High Priest. What we have is literally the ability of every person to walk into the innermost sacred place, the Tent of Tabernacles. It’s quite an interesting perspective for an immigrant artist to paint.”
And no matter what your perspective would have been, anyone at the synagogue could take it in.
“In its original location, it was very impressive to the men below and to the women in the galleries,” Gruber said.
Black received $200 for his undertaking. A man of many interests – a professional artist who also played the mandolin, wrote plays in Yiddish and acted – Black went on to a successful career as a signmaker in Burlington with the slogan, “B. Black, Signs of the Better Kind.” His clients included Vermont Transit and the State House.
“Almost every sign in Burlington was done by his company,” Gruber said. He added, however, that Black never did anything again with the scope of the mural.
“Many people who are very young do one thing, then go off in their lives, and in the curve of time, they do something else. It shouldn’t be surprising. It’s a shame, of course, there were not many synagogues in Vermont to decorate,” said Gruber.
And within the next several decades, the number of synagogues in Burlington would start to shrink – including Chai Adam.
Preserved, but forgotten
The year was 1939. The German army was poised to invade Poland to begin World War II, signaling the start of the Holocaust and the destruction of the wooden synagogues.
Meanwhile, the US still felt the effects of the Great Depression and Chai Adam could not recover from the financial crisis. Fifty years after it had broken off from Ohavi Zedek, Chai Adam re-merged with its former competitor.
“Ohavi Zedek took possession of the building and cemetery,” Goldberg said. “It used the building for several years, then the building was sold.”
The passage of time also adversely affected the mural. Charcoal used to heat the building from 1889 to World War II changed the colors of the artwork; the congregation had varnished the mural just twice.
‘Had it been in Lithuania, it would have been destroyed’
By the end of World War II, 6 million Jews had perished in the Holocaust and thousands of wooden synagogues were lost to posterity. As for Black’s mural, Gruber said, “Had it been in Lithuania, it would have been destroyed.”
The mural was not destroyed, but its original purpose was lost as the building continued to cycle through owners, including Harry Wheel, a carpet warehouse wholesaler in the 1960s and 1970s.
Jeff Potash, who with Goldberg is co-director of the Lost Shul Mural Project and co-archivist at Ohavi Zedek, said that his parents, along with Goldberg’s mother, shopped at the synagogue-turned-carpet warehouse.
“I have definite memories of a cavernous warehouse, all the walls stripped off, everything that had given any semblance of form to the synagogue was gone,” said Potash, who grew up two houses away from Goldberg in Burlington. “The walls were exposed two-by-fours.”
And yet, Potash recalled, “there was a curious piece of art, 11 feet above in front.” He described it as “funky,” something that intrigued him as a child.
In later years, after carpet salesman Wheel died, Potash met the wholesaler’s son-in-law. He described Wheel as a “very strong Catholic” and added, “The mural talked to him. He could dispose of everything else, and he did, but (there was) something about that mural that he couldn’t destroy.”
Goldberg wrote about the Burlington Jewish community while a student at Brandeis University, from which he graduated in 1979. He received his law degree in 1982 and three years later was named archivist at Ohavi Zedek. And then, in 1986, he stepped into the unlikely role of helping to save the mural he had first seen hanging in a carpet warehouse.
A race against time
In Burlington and in Vermont in general, history was being made in 1986. Madeleine Kunin, Vermont’s first Jewish governor and the first female elected governor in the US, was reelected to another term. Her opponents included an independent candidate named Bernie Sanders.
Locally in Burlington, the former Chai Adam building underwent yet another change of ownership. The latest owner happened to be a close neighbor of Goldberg’s, Barbara Francis.
“She has the notion it can be converted into an apartment building,” Potash said. “Her neighbor Aaron feels comfortable [to approach her about the mural]. A conversation commences. It would probably not [have started] if he hadn’t known her.”
By this time, Ohavi Zedek had moved to a new building that had gone up in 1952. The consulting architect, Marcel Beaudin, had kept in touch with Goldberg, including about the mural.
“It was up high,” Beaudin said. “They never got up to desecrate or remove it. [Francis] knew Aaron was Jewish and [affiliated with a] synagogue. She called him. ‘Aaron, come and look.’ He was flabbergasted.”
‘I was calling every single museum, university, college… They would not entertain even the idea of restoring it’
Francis gave Goldberg one month to try to move the mural.
“The technology did not exist then,” Goldberg said. “I was calling every single museum, university, college… They would not entertain even the idea of restoring it. I wanted to get it out and save it. It’s so big, so massive, it could not be permanently stored [in the Chai Adam building].”
“[Goldberg] reached out to the premier museums,” Potash said, listing the Fleming Museum of Art at the University of Vermont and the Shelburne Museum. “He contacted people and asked, ‘Can you help me?’ They said it’s very interesting, but a local curiosity. He simply did not find the resources by virtue of its size. It was a challenge as well. They pretty much told Aaron that even though he had this notion that it could be done, in their estimation, it was not likely, and even if he got it out, there would be nowhere to house it. Neither [museum] had any interest.”
Goldberg and Francis found a solution, if only a temporary one. A false wall was built six inches in front of the mural.
“She was willing to create a false wall and protect it at some limited expense,” Potash said. “Perhaps it had a future.”
Yet that future was looking bleak.
“In the photos from 1986, it was very dark and very brown,” Goldberg said.
An unveiling after 24 years of darkness
Francis owned what became known as the Garden Apartments for 24 years, until 2010. During that time the mural remained walled up and a work of art originally meant for an entire congregation to see was deteriorating quietly, hidden from view.
In 2010, Francis, who had lost her husband to a heart attack prior to purchasing the building, herself died of cancer.
“She had a short life,” Potash said. “It was tragic.”
Francis bequeathed the Garden Apartments to her daughters and the building was eventually sold to developer Steve Offenhartz in 2012. Again, the new owner had a connection with Goldberg: the two of them had children the same age.
“I had known Aaron, and after I closed the sale and owned the building, I called up Aaron and said, ‘I think I have something you want,’” Offenhartz said. “He was shocked and excited. We went from there.
“The wall was there. I did not see [the mural]. I had no idea what it looked like. The mural was behind there. I was told Ohavi Zedek had been interested forever. I told him, ‘I have something you want.’”
After almost 25 years, the wall was cut away for Goldberg and Potash to take a look.
“When we exposed the mural, and realized it was still there, we knew it was truly of international importance,” Potash said. “We bore some responsibility to do the best we could do, thinking of stages and steps.”
Goldberg and architect Beaudin worked on some innovative plans. The architect noted that Goldberg introduced him to the mural “through pictures he had taken before it was all closed in. It had taken extensive damage.”
Beaudin, familiar with the Ohavi Zedek synagogue, said he realized, “By gosh, the darn thing could hang in from the entryway.” The congregation was excited at the prospect and planners drew up preliminary designs on how the mural could be moved there.
But before they could move the mural, they had to convince the Ohavi Zedek board.
“There was no money and no wherewithal, but back in 2012 there was newfound respect and understanding,” Potash said. “Not just as a local curiosity, but a symbol of what we would lose of our collective past.”
Two seminal books had come out within the past decade about wooden synagogue art: “Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community” by Thomas C. Hubka in 2003, and “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel, Jewish Carving Traditions” by Murray Zimiles in 2007.
“There was not interest till after 2000,” Goldberg said. “I went to Lithuania in 2007. I took photos of the last remaining painted plaster ark in a synagogue, the shtetl my family was from.”
Goldberg called the Ohavi Zedek board “extremely supportive of the entire process.” Potash said there were some caveats.
“We presented [the plans] to the board and asked for their blessing,” Potash said. “It was somewhat open-ended. We were not sure of the timing, the cost, all sorts of other things… In 2012, we started the process. The synagogue and board were involved to know this vision and hope.”
A vision implemented through practical details
The mural was housed inside one unit of the Chai Adam building. Beginning in June 2012, Ohavi Zedek leased this unit from Offenhartz, paying him rent. He asked and received one other condition, a plaque honoring his father, Mitchell Offenhartz.
Ohavi Zedek also hired two conservators – Rick Kerschner of the Shelburne Museum and Constance Silver, a restorer of paintings and historical architecture.
“Rick Kerschner knew about me and contacted me as the one person in Vermont who could probably do the job,” Silver said.
There was much to do.
“The mural was in real dire condition,” Silver said. “After removing the fake wall, you could really see the painting was on its last legs. At least we would begin to do first aid so paint would stop falling off the painting.”
It would take four months to stabilize the mural, almost as much time as it had taken Black to build it back in 1910.
“It was reduced to hundreds of thousands of little fragile flakes ready to fall off,” Silver said. “The original surface of the painting, you couldn’t really see it, it was so covered in varnish and dirt. It was dark brown.
“On the tests, the cleaning tests, the mural looks like it was made out of candy. It’s a big thing, it looked like a big piece of cloth, a crazy, psychedelic, wonderful, fun, joyous mural painting. Just very, very vivid,” she said.
“A lot of things were unanticipated. There were fragments of the original hand inscription at the base. I’m Jewish, and we don’t destroy the written word. [The fragments] had to be detached,” said Silver.
As the work continued in 2013, the project team not only worked to preserve a work of art, it worked to create an entirely new structure: a temporary building.
“It was an astonishing enterprise,” Goldberg said. “We built a temporary building over the outside [of the Chai Adam building]. It enveloped outside that end of the building. It was green, it had doors and windows, electricity and heat. The conservator could work from the inside of the mural, and the contractors could work on the outside of the mural.”
Steadily, the mural took on more of its former appearance.
“Once it was stabilized, the conservator continued to clean and get the charcoal off,” Goldberg said. “Green colors became blue. The Ten Commandments became red.” And the gold on the curtains grew “more vivid,” he said. “The tops of the marble tent poles got very vibrant as they were cleaned. A four-inch square of blue curtain, it showed what it looked like in 1910, an incredibly vibrant blue.”
After the initial stabilization and subsequent processes, the conservators had to work on planning for the hoped-for move.
“The worst-case scenario, what if you drop it, or the architectural stand shifts?” Silver said. “We had to over-engineer the problem of the mural and the plan.”
‘My jaw dropped. I felt shivers all over’
In the summer of 2013, Berman connected the project co-directors with Gruber.
“They asked what I thought,” Gruber said. “I said, ‘I think it sounds great, amazing, interesting. But until I see it, it’s hard to believe and understand.’ They asked, ‘Why don’t you come to Burlington?’”
In November of that year, Gruber arrived at Ohavi Zedek as a weekend scholar-in-residence. He described the mural as “very fragile and fragmentary.”
Nevertheless, he said, “My jaw dropped. I felt shivers all over. It rocked my socks off. It was an amazing experience.”
‘It was rare in the sense that it was an exceptional work’
He conveyed the importance of the mural to a full house at Ohavi Zedek in a series of lectures.
“I explained the background, the Eastern European background, the immigrant background to the mural,” Gruber said.
“I explained to the congregation, and to the larger Burlington community that attended, the rare quality of the mural… in the sense that few survived of the works from this period. Its lineage and quality.
“It was rare in the sense that it was an exceptional work. They saw it as Jewish folk art. I saw it as Jewish traditional art of the early 20th century. I just came away very excited. I have been involved in a lot of historical preservation projects in Eastern Europe, Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Moldova, many places where I encountered the remnants of Jewish culture in devastated and destroyed communities over the last 25-30 years. In my encounter with this mural, it was equal in impact. I became a great, great supporter and advocate of the project.”
As the conservators worked within the temporary building to restore the mural, Gruber took on a consulting role to bring the mural to greater attention.
“It was a lot of work to create grass-roots volunteer efforts and raise money,” Gruber said.
Former Gov. Kunin stepped in as honorary chair of the fundraising committee. However, the costs rose even as the project met its initial fundraising goal of $150,000.
‘It was a lot of hard work by a lot of people over a long period’
“In the end, the costs were much higher,” Gruber said. “It was higher still to finish. It was a lot of hard work by a lot of people over a long period.”
In the end, after Ohavi Zedek began renting the three-bedroom unit from Offenhartz in June 2012, he did not retake possession and rent it out again until September 2015 – just over three years.
By the end of that long period, however, everyone involved had reason to celebrate.
It was May 7, 2015, over 100 years since Ben Zion Black had painted the mural in one synagogue. Now it was being moved to another. The mural had been encased in a steel frame in preparation to its move.
“You have to understand that in order to move it, you needed a frame,” Beaudin said. “Once you encapsulate the mural in such a way, once you pull it away, with the aid of a crane, there could be no movement whatsoever. A crack would show stress. The plaster would fall right off. It could be a disaster. Absolutely the frame was designed to be rigid.”
“The process took months and months and months,” Potash said. “Engineers created models and tested notions, conservators had to plan for lifting out the casing in a steel frame. It was a testimonial to Aaron’s team, and to Marcel Beaudin.
“It was supposed to have taken an entire day. It took about three hours. It was something to be seen … The fake roof was taken off by a crane, bringing the object itself, which was placed very carefully on a flatbed to the new synagogue. A temporary road ensured it [could] be delivered,” said Potash.
‘Engineers created models and tested notions, conservators had to plan for lifting out the casing in a steel frame’
The entire front section of Ohavi Zedek, including the glass doors, had been temporarily removed as people watched in anticipation.
“[The mural was placed] onto a landing pad, very carefully moved by workmen on wheels, and gently pushed into its new home,” Potash said. “After that was done, it does take several weeks before various linking metal pieces are lifted up to the 11-foot position it currently resides in.
“Over the course of a morning, it moved out of its original home and moved into its new home. I was watching in utter amazement. It was just clockwork, just clockwork,” said Potash.
The mural hangs in a steel frame on four steel rods screwed into the ceiling of the synagogue lobby. The effect is quite dramatic.
“You walk in, and initially you don’t see how it’s held, you’re caught up in the notion you’re standing under it,” said Potash.
On August 2, 2015, almost one year ago, the Lost Shul Mural was re-found in a sense, unveiled to the public in a ceremony at Ohavi Zedek that attracted about 200 people.
Kunin spoke at the ceremony, calling the mural “a vivid symbol of freedom over oppression [and] hope over despair,” Goldberg recalled.
Vermont Senator Pat Leahy also spoke at the event, and was able to get the mural mentioned in the Congressional Record.
One congregant came up with one more innovative idea for the project.
“She decided what we would do would be to put brown paper bags around the entire mural, and tear them so everyone would see mural at the same time,” Potash said. “The hall was filled with celebrants, there was lots of food and drink, it was truly joyful. We have had numbers of people locally, local businesses, a large number of non-Jews. The mural has been sort of a local cause, tremendous pride, in the local community.”
The plans for the mural are ongoing. Silver said she estimates the work at 50 percent done.
At last count, there have been 447 individual donors or families or couples. Donations have ranged from $5 to one anonymous gift of $50,000.
Some would like to fully restore the mural to Black’s 1910 creation.
“We have a new fundraising campaign that will begin shortly,” Gruber said. “We’ll finish up on the restoration of the mural.”
Others do not want such extensive restoration. Beaudin said the cost would be considerable, and suggested restoring only several elements as vignettes.
“Blend it into the old, the existing,” he said. “You come in, and just see the key symbols… You look at this old mural, sense its original purpose, the symbols of the tablets, the lions, the eternal light. There’s still a sense it comes from somewhere else.”
Today the mural that now hangs securely in its new home after years of uncertainty.
“It opens the door to so many significant narratives — Jewish history, the Holocaust, European history, American immigrant history,” Gruber said. “Every time I look at it, a new idea, a new perspective, some new story can be found in the work. It’s quite remarkable.”